Robin Clifford Wood, Hampden
Twenty-three years ago my husband and I bought an old island house that once belonged to Rachel Field, a famous Maine writer from the 1930s. Rachel died suddenly in 1942 at the age of 47, but details about the rest of her story were scarce. As a novice writer myself, I felt a resonance with this woman who had died long before I was born. Over the next nine years I engaged in a kind of treasure hunt as I researched Rachel Field’s history. I read her poetry, plays, novels, and children’s books, but also hundreds of her letters archived in collections from Maine to California. Most of Rachel’s letters were circumspect around personal matters. In particular, her love life remained a mystery. In her letters, I sought the complex emotional spectrum that was evident in her published writing. Rachel’s life ended tragically, but did she ever find true happiness? Two pieces of music provided the breakthrough I was looking for.
Five years into the hunt, fate led me to a well-hidden collection of 30 letters that Rachel wrote to a southern gentleman in New Orleans. They are outpourings of a passionate love that ended in rejection and heartache, and led to some of Rachel’s finest, most poignant poetry. In one of her letters to this man, Rachel wrote: “Oh, dear me, ‘The Empty Bed Blues’ have nothing on me today.” I Googled the song and was instantly immersed in Bessie Smith’s sultry, keening voice crooning those sexually charged lyrics. Oh, dear me. Eighty years ago, young Rachel heard Bessie’s voice sing her longing. For the first time, I had the sense that I knew just what Rachel was feeling.
Much later in her life, at age forty, Rachel married Broadway actor, Arthur Pederson. She moved with her husband to California and published “All This and Heaven Too,” a novel that was made into a blockbuster Hollywood film by Warner Brothers Studio. When I visited the Warner Brothers archives I found the piano sheet music for a song, “All This and Heaven Too,” by Jimmy Van Heusen. I made a copy to take home with me. Rachel was involved in the movie production and surely knew this song well. One of her friends recalled a conversation she’d had with Rachel at that time. “All this and heaven too,” Rachel said to her. “Heaven is Arthur!”
Back at home I sat down to my own piano and played the song. What a contrast to the “Empty Bed Blues.” This was heaven, romantic bliss, serene security, and supreme contentedness. Through this gorgeous, evocative song, I lingered with Rachel in love at last.
I’m Robin Clifford Wood, and this is music that moves me.